Reading and Walking

Walking, Reading, and Reading about Walking

Category: Uncategorized

Frenchmen’s Trail Walk, Day Five

I was humbled by my blisters twice yesterday. First, I couldn’t walk more than a couple of miles. And then, when we arrived at our destination, Judy, who trained as a nurse, taped the blisters for me. That was especially humbling, because after four days on the road, my feet–to be blunt–stink. I’m still hopeful that I’ll be able to hobble into Gravelbourg. We’ll see.

We had a communal supper last night, our first: pilgrims’ chicken, cooked by Dave, Madonna’s curried lentils, chili I threw together from dehydrated beans and fresh tomatoes. My favourite meals on the Camino were the ones we cooked together, and the same was true last night. We’d put together the gazebo that was in the back of Hugh’s truck, and we huddled together against the cold night. The full moon was red from the smoke in the air.

It was cold last night, colder than it was in Mortlach, but I was prepared: I wore all the clothes I have to bed. I cinched the bivvy sack tight and tried to find the sweet spot between hypothermia and asphyxiation. By morning, after vivid dreams that were more like hallucinations, I was erring on the side of hypothermia, sticking my face out of the bivvy to breathe the sweet, cold, damp air.

We’re eating breakfast together and I’m drinking perked coffee for the first time in decades. It’s not bad.

The plan–I hope it stays the plan–is to walk to the cathedral in Gravelbourg. That would make this a real pilgrimage: a destination pilgrimage, as Matthew would say, rather than a journey pilgrimage. That’s an important distinction.

Louise has been leading us in a smudge and prayers every morning before we set out. It helps to frame the journey as something sacred, an exercise of gratitude. For everything except blisters, I think.

Later: We arrived in Gravelbourg a little after one o’clock. We trudged down Main Street, past a group of motorcyclists who seemed to have come to town for the burger special at the bar, to the cathedral. There’s a quiet place around back, beneath some poplars, and Louise led us through a sharing circle there. Sharing circles always make me anxious; everyone else’s insights always seem so much more profound than mine. I said I’d been thinking about my blisters–they’re bleeding now–and whether I can be grateful for them. I said I think I can, because they teach me humility; they draw my attention to my human frailty. I thought this walk would be easy, having completed that arduous journey to Wood Mountain two weeks ago. That was overconfidence, pride. My blisters made me ask for help on this walk. That’s something I have trouble doing. So they humbled me; they didn’t humiliate me. There’s a difference.

The cathedral bells are ringing in our honour. In a few minutes, we’ll have a tour of the cathedral, and then a barbecue at the home of Don’s sister and brother-in-law. And then we’ll go our separate ways. Our community is temporary, but that doesn’t make it any less profound.

Frenchmen’s Trail Walk, Day Four

A good night’s sleep can do marvellous things. Last night, I was sure I’d be riding in the truck today. I could hardly put any weight on my blistered foot. This morning, the blisters are still there, but after I put on my shoes and socks, I found I was walking almost normally. So I’m going to start walking today. The first hour or so we’ll be walking beside the Wood River, through a rare grove of trees. I wouldn’t want to miss that.

Later: We were short a driver for one of the support vehicles, so Hugh, our leader, decided to drive this morning. That was fine when we were on a road, but where we had to turn to follow the river, it became a problem, because only Hugh knows the way, so I volunteered to take the wheel. I think it’s my turn to be part of what makes this walk possible, instead of relying on others to carry the burden. Plus, my blister is quite sore. Altruism meets self-interest, I suppose.

Later: Driving the support vehicle is dull work. The books I brought are back at my car. I feel separated from the group, who area half mile or so behind me. They’re chatting and walking and I’m not. I’m sitting in the truck, listening to the wind and the cows and the crickets and smelling the smoke from the wildfires further west. There are advantages, though. I can charge my phone, and write this blog post. And, I should add, rest my blistered feet.

I look as if I’ve been walking: my clothes and shoes are dusty. I’m saving my clean socks for our supper in Gravelbourg, so I smell like I’ve been walking, too. I hope I’m the only one who’s noticed.

Later: We ate lunch at a farmyard that was one of the original stops on the Frenchmen’s Trail. I’d been feeling separated from the group, but the lunch was communal, with everyone sharing what they had. A community develops quickly on these walks. That was my experience last year, and it’s the same this year.

In a couple of miles we’ll be on Highway 58, heading south into Gravelbourg. I worry about so many people walking on the shoulder of the highway, but the support vehicles will help to warn drivers to slow down.

Later: Connie rode with me this afternoon, so I had company. That was good. It’s very smoky and windy. At lunch I thought I could smell roasting coffee; it was the smoke, blown east on the wind. So many fires burning in B.C.; it breaks my heart thinking about them, and the reason the forests are burning.

Later: We’ve turned a farmer’s yard into a shantytown for the night. Soon we’ll start cooking supper. The walkers are hungry. And thirsty.

I’ve never been sidelined by blisters before, and it’s been a humbling experience. At least I was able to do something productive. That helps take away some of the sting. Connie gave me some Compeed for my blisters, and I’m hoping that, reinforced with tape, they’ll stay on until the end of tomorrow’s six-mile plod into Gravelbourg. That’s my goal: to finish this pilgrimage on foot.

Frenchmen’s Trail Walk, Day Three

I slept on a high-jump mat in a former grade seven classroom last night, and surprisingly I didn’t dream about being 12 years old. We’re living in luxury here: there’s a kitchen and tables and chairs, and running cold water, although you can’t drink it. Most of us had showers, but I couldn’t face a cold shower, so I’m still grimy with dust and sweat and sunscreen. Not enough sunscreen: I’m turning brown and my dermatologist would be unhappy with me.

It doesn’t take long to start missing ordinary things: running water, chairs, a flush toilet instead of a hastily dug hole behind one bushes (if you’re lucky enough to find some bushes). I’m sure people get used to sleeping rough, but it’s a hard adjustment. I was grateful to sleep inside last night, partly because I’d made friends with a big dog and I’m sure he would’ve come to visit me in the bivvy sack in the night.

Today our destination is Shamrock Regional Park, on the Wood River. It’s our longest walk, and it’s going to be hot: up to 35 degrees. Wish us luck.

Later: It’s noon and we’re stopping for a snack and some water. The water I’m carrying is already hot. The road we’re walking on is soft dirt and my blisters appreciate the fact that I’m not walking over stones. Here are wisps of cirrus clouds in the sky, but they have no effect on the pitiless sun. We’ve walked eight or nine kilometres, and we’re not yet at the halfway point.

Later: It is hot, and my blistered feet hurt. I’m starting to hobble, like the day I walked to Limerick. We’re having another break, sitting beside a gravelled road and a field of barley. I’m worried about heat exhaustion, not just for myself, but for all of us.

Later: Because of the heat, we cut our walk short today–only 20 kilometres, according to my Fitbit. That’s okay: we’re at the park where we’re staying tonight, and everybody is fine, more or less. There’s even a canteen here, so my cheeseburger tour of southwestern Saskatchewan may continue tonight. Tomorrow is supposed to be hot again, but the plan is for a shorter walk, so we’ll be fine. I hope.

Frenchmen’s Trail Walk, Day Two

Last night, we did all the things solo walkers can’t (or don’t usually). There was cold beer. Dave brought his guitar, and we sang old folk songs. I didn’t know that Matthew could play, but when Dave went to cook his supper, Matthew took over as choir leader. I went to bed when it got dark, and as I unrolled my bivvy sack, I found myself singing Merle Haggard songs to myself.

It was much warmer last night, and I slept well, maybe because I was so tired. This morning, my feet feel much better. I ate porridge and drank coffee, and Matthew shared his fried eggs with me. We’ll be on the road soon. Today, two women are driving out from Regina to join us, so we’ll be quite a large group.

Later: We walked on grid roads this morning, but for the past three hours we’ve been walking over pasture. Most of the time, we’ve been walking on native grassland, which is lovely, but also dangerous: one of our party, Karen, stepped in a badger hole. No harm was done, but that’s how ankles get broken, and it would be a long way to carry someone to safety. Karen is light enough that we could easily get her to safety, but I’m afraid that if I got hurt I’d have to wait for the rancher and a bone-crunching ride on a quad out to the road.

I grew a blister on the sole of my right foot today, and it broke a couple of miles back. Ow. I’m on the downward side of the pain curve now, though, and I’m confident it’ll be fine to walk on tomorrow.

Right now we’re resting under shady trees at Marlatt Springs, one of the stops on the original Frenchmen’s Trail. There’s a cool breeze even though it’s a warm day. We’re eating snacks and drinking water, getting ready for the last two hours of walking. A Swainson’s hawk is screaming overhead. It’s a lovely place to stop.

When we get to Courval, we’re going to stop at the cathedral, then get the vehicles and drive into Coderre, where we’ll have supper and spend the night in the community centre. I’m looking forward to a cold beer. Tomorrow we’ll return to Courval and start walking again.

Later: We’re in Coderre. Some of us are having a shower. Some are cooking dinner. Some of us are in the hotel, enjoying a well-earned beverage. Today was a long walk; tomorrow will be longer, and there’ll be no cold beer at the end of it. Unless we’re very lucky.

Frenchmen’s Trail Walk, Day One

We camped at the golf course in Mortlach last night. It was cold. I broke the half-zipper on my ultra-light, high-tech sleeping bag, which didn’t help. I’m not sure if the manufacturer traded robustness for weight, or if the bag was designed for a slim-hipped youth rather than a man of my carriage. And I could’ve used a winter hat–against the draft through the opening of my bivouac sack–never forget a warm hat for cold nights. I slept poorly, and the half dozen freight trains that passed on the main CP line 100 metres away didn’t help. I’ll be tired today, but that means I’ll sleep better tonight.

A group of us are walking the Frenchmen’s Trail. It’s the route settlers from Quebec took, from he railway station in Mortlach to heir homesteads near Gravelbourg. The walk is organized by Hugh Henry, who put together last year’s walk on the Battleford Trail. These walks are a way to experience the history of this place in a visceral way, with our bodies. And it’s fun to walk with other people. The walk to Wood Mountain was isolated in comparison. Solo walks are that way.

Yesterday we toured the museum in Mortlach, and then we drove out to look at a couple of archaeological sites. We at dinner together in town. The restaurant, Franklyn’s, apparently makes real English fish and chips with mushy peas, and I’d like to return to give that a try.

We’re still getting ready for the day. There’s breakfast in town, but Matthew brought bagels from Montreal, and that’s a rare treat. Today’s walk is 25 kilometres, and I’m looking forward to it.

Later: It’s lunch time. We’re 10 kilometres in, and so far all is well, although the shoes I’m trying out instead of my heavy and hot (and therefore sweaty) boots could be more supportive. There’s been a lot of harvest-related traffic on the road, although of course I didn’t think to take a picture of one of the combines.

Later: After walking some 25 kilometres, we arrived at our campsite: an abandoned farmyard. Everyone is tired. I’ve been wearing different shoes and insoles, and my feet are exhausted. But it was quite a day of walking: through Nature Conservancy pastures and along the original path of the Frenchmen’s Trail. Usually we walk on grid roads that roughly parallel the route of the trail, because much of its path has been cultivated and is on private land, so to walk in the ruts of the trail itself is unusual and special.

Now it’s time to cook some supper and rest my feet.

P.S. There was no cell service last night, so I’m posting this blog this morning.

Thinking About Boots

Aussiehunter-Hitec-Sierra-V-Lite-hiking-boots

Since I finished Planetwalker, I’ve been thinking about boots. You see, John Francis started on his long walk across the U.S. more than 30 years ago, and footwear was different then. Francis wore heavy leather boots, the kind that, today, you’d consider old-fashioned. Now if you wear boots when you walk–and a lot of people prefer shoes–they’re probably lightweight, with GoreTex uppers and one-piece soles.

Heavy leather boots are, well, heavy. That makes them tiring to wear when you’re walking long distances. But they have advantages over fabric boots. They last a long time: I bought a pair when I was 17, and I was still wearing them 20 years later. They last that long because you can get them fixed: when the heels or soles wear out, a cobbler can replace them. That’s not the case with fabric boots. When the heels wear down, you have to buy a whole new pair.

When Francis walked across the U.S., he would stop and get his boots repaired when they needed it. He even carried spare Vibram heels with him, just in case a small-town cobbler didn’t have the right ones in stock. Two things about that are striking. First, 30 years ago, people still got their shoes fixed, because their shoes were designed to be fixable, and second, it wasn’t unusual to find a shoe-repair shop, even in a small town. Today, everything’s different. Shoes and boots are more likely to be designed to be disposable now. So if Francis were to walk across the U.S. today, he’d be replacing his boots every thousand miles, instead of repairing them.

We’ve gained something with lighter footwear designs: they’re more comfortable and not as hot. But we’ve lost something, too. Sometimes I wish I had the old-fashioned kind of boots. After all, isn’t it better to fix something instead of throwing it away?

Across the Moon: Two Unprepared Brothers Traverse Iceland on Foot, by Jamie Bowlby-Whiting, and Walking and Trekking in Iceland, by Paddy Dillon

I’ve been watching a lot of Icelandic TV series on Netflix lately. And as a result, I’ve become interested in the landscape of that fragment of Europe sitting in the North Atlantic: the barren hills, the glaciers, the stark mountains. Would it be possible to walk there, I wondered? To find out, I ordered two books on the subject: Jamie Bowlby-Whiting’s first person account of crossing Iceland from south to north on foot with his brother Elliott, Across the Moon: Two Unprepared Brothers Traverse Iceland on Foot, and a guide to walking in Iceland, written by Paddy Dillon and published by Cicerone.

across-the-moon-cover

The subtitle of Bowlby-Whiting’s book tells most of the story: neither he nor his brother had any experience hiking before they attempted their walk across Iceland’s bleak and dangerous mountains. Their gear was useless, they weren’t physically up to hiking 25 or 30 kilometres per day while carrying 30 kilograms of gear (and not many people are–myself included, as I discovered in Ontario two years ago), and their only map covered just a fraction of their route. Because they weren’t prepared, they made many mistakes. They tried heading directly north, using a compass, and as a result they found their way blocked by raging glacial rivers which they had to wade across. Their packs were too heavy, so they got rid of most of their food; they ended up living on chocolate and uncooked ramen noodles for the remainder of their trip. Nothing cooperated: not the terrain, not the weather. A nearby volcano was threatening to erupt, and everyone told them they shouldn’t be walking near it. And yet they somehow managed to complete their journey. They were lucky, I think, because things could easily have gone very wrong for them. Well, even more wrong.

Across the Moon is a self-published book, and although I typically don’t bother to read anything that couldn’t find a regular publisher, I’m glad I made an exception this time. Bowlby-Whiting is an engaging narrator, frank about his mistakes and the liberties he takes with the truth early in the book. I like the book’s structure as well: reflective chapters about Bowlby-Whiting’s life and his relationship with his brother alternate with chapters about the walk itself. It’s a fun read.

And yet, I can’t believe the two brothers attempted this hike, given their experience and their equipment. Let me give you an example. Bowlby-Whiting always took off his shoes while wading through those glacial torrents. His brother Elliott did not. Now, everything I’ve read about fording rivers has said that it’s a terrible idea to do it without footwear: rocks can be sharp or slippery and it’s easier to fall when you’re barefoot. In his book on walking in Iceland, Paddy Dillon suggests carrying a pair of Crocs for river crossings (and as camp shoes). So does Justin Lichter, the author of Trail Tested: A Thru-Hiker’s Guide to Ultralight Hiking and Backpacking. “If the ford is tough then do not go barefoot!” Lichter says. “If the river is really gentle wear shoes when fording a river. They help with traction and protect your feet in case there are jagged rocks in the water.” So whether the ford is tough or not, you protect your feet, according to Lichter.

But wearing shoes while crossing those rivers didn’t help Elliott in the end. His shoes were cheap, you see, and they shrank and twisted as they dried. He couldn’t wear them afterwards and ended up walking the final 200 kilometres with flip-flops taped to his feet. I can’t imagine that. The moral of the story: don’t buy cheap shoes, and always carry a pair of decent lightweight sandals.

Flip-flops. I remember seeing a young Canadian walking the Camino wearing flip-flops and carrying a hockey duffel bag instead of a backpack. He was from Kelowna, I think. Everyone has their own way, I guess. And the Bowlby-Whitings managed to complete a trek I’d never attempt, even with preparation and decent gear. So who am I to say?

walking-and-trekking-in-iceland

Walking and Trekking in Iceland is a completely different kind of book. In fact, it’s the kind of book the brothers might’ve considered consulting before setting out on their trek. Dillon describes both day-hikes and multi-day treks in different parts of the island. He also explains important stuff about Iceland that foreigners might not know–like how to buy topographical maps of the island, how to get access to private mountain huts, how the country’s bus service works, and when to go if you’re thinking about a walking holiday there. (August is busy and before June it’s too cold.) It’s the kind of book I’d have in a Ziplock bag in my coat pocket or at the top of my backpack if I were walking in Iceland, the kind of book one could use to plan a walking holiday in that country.

So read Across the Moon for a story about what not to do, one that luckily has a happy ending, and read Walking and Trekking in Iceland if you find yourself thinking about visiting that country.

 

Walking to Work at Minus 39 Degrees

img_1391

What’s it like walking five kilometres to work when the windchill is minus 39 degrees? Surprisingly warm, as it turned out. This morning, I must’ve been wearing one layer too many, because I was quite perspired by the time I got to my office. Even my hands were sweaty in my mitts.

My twin concessions to the cold were to pull my balaclava up over the end of my nose (which meant removing my glasses, which would’ve otherwise fogged up and frosted over), and to pull up the hood of my light gore-tex windbreaker. Perhaps it was the hood, but I was a lot warmer today than I was yesterday, when the mercury was a good 10 or 15 degrees higher.

I wonder if the hysteria about the cold–the endless extreme cold warnings on the radio, for example–is necessary. Of course, if you don’t have a place to live, these temperatures could easily be deadly. But for most of us, going outside needn’t present any insurmountable difficulties–as long as we dress for the cold. And if that means having to cover up exposed skin to avoid frostbite, well, that’s what it means. We live in this climate and we have to come to terms with that fact, don’t we?

 

Will Self’s “Psychogeography”

image

I’m reading Will Self’s book Psychogeography and came across this defence of walking:

I’ve taken to long-distance walking as a means of dissolving the mechanized matrix which compresses the space-time continuum, and decouples human from physical geography. So this isn’t walking for leisure–that would be merely frivolous, or for exercise–which would be tedious.

Indeed. My toe seems better, and I’m looking forward to dissolving the matrix which compresses space-time later this week.

App Testing and Google Earth

I met with Rob Knox from the Department of Geography last week. He explained what .kml and .kmz files are for and how to integrate GPS information with Google Earth. He showed me GPS tracking units and examples of the way he’s tracked walks and bike rides using them. It was very productive, and right afterwards I found an app for my phone that allows me to export GPS data to Google Earth in a .kmz file. So this is what this morning’s walk to work looked like on Google Earth:

walk to work 18 april

I’m going to keep testing this app to see how much battery life it uses, but I might take Rob up on his offer to borrow a GPS unit for my walk in Ontario in June. I’ll have to test that thoroughly, too, if that’s the direction I decide to take. However, I like the images this app produces through Google Earth much better than the ones made by the app I’ve been using to map my walks (called, not coincidentally, “Map My Walk”), even if it’s a little more complicated to create them. When I look ahead to my walk in June, I think it will make a lot more sense to include a picture rather than a map. I’ll be walking through territory that originally belonged to the Six Nations, and I can’t help thinking there’s something a little dodgy, politically speaking, about being a settler and mapping that space. An image, though, feels different.

In other news, it looks like I broke my pinky toe, again, on my first walk on the Old 16 Road loop. I remember feeling a sudden shooting pain in my foot, and that must be when it happened. That toe has broken many times before in the last 25 years; it’s something I just have to live with. Sometimes, if my boots are too tight, it will break when my foot swells during a walk. I’m not too worried–the same toe broke about six weeks before I walked the Camino de Santiago and it healed before I left, despite all the training walks I took–and although it’s too swollen to fit most of my shoes, it still fits into my hiking boots. Really, that’s all I need. That, and ibuprofen, and I should be fine.